Many people who know Santayana only from anthologies are surprised to discover how thoroughly naturalistic a thinker he was. Santayana’s naturalism — what he describes in one essay as “the open-air materialistic setting” of his philosophy — was the well-spring of the great attribute that complemented his urbanity: his unshakeable sanity. It somehow seems strange for a poet of his sometimes trembling fervency. But right from the start Santayana’s primary philosophical inspirations were radical materialists like Lucretius and Spinoza (Spinoza, he said, “in several respects laid the foundation of my philosophy”).
Santayana’s naturalism assured his implacable hostility to supernaturalism: the patent variety — his native Roman Catholicism, for example — as well as the covert versions populating many schools of philosophy — German idealism, say, in both its original and transplanted-to-England-and-America forms.
In 1890, when he was in his late twenties, Santayana wrote to William James that “I doubt whether the earth supports a more genuine enemy of all that the Catholic Church inwardly stands for than I do,” and he later noted that he had “never been what is called a practising Catholic.” It was a position from which he never wavered. It is worth stressing this. Santayana spent the last twelve years of his life at the Blue Sisters’ clinic in Rome. This has tempted some commentators to suggest that his atheism softened or even evaporated with age. But this was not the case. During his last illness, Santayana took pains to advise his friend Daniel Cory that if he were unconscious and the sacrament of Extreme Unction were administered, no one should interpret that as a deathbed conversion.
Santayana’s philosophical sanity, delicately on view throughout Character and Opinion, is somewhat more bluntly stated in Egotism in German Philosophy, first published in 1916. In one central passage, writing about thinkers like Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Santayana notes that “the more profound they are the more content and even delighted they are to consider nothing but their own creations. Their theory of knowledge proclaims that knowledge is impossible. You know only your so-called knowledge, which itself knows nothing; and you are limited to the autobiography of your illusions.” Santayana’s description of Hegel’s dialectic as a futile attempt to make “things conform to words, not words to things” says everything one needs to know about that intellectual monstrosity.
In Character and Opinion, Santayana extends that criticism to Transcendentalism — that odd confect of displaced religious yearning and psychological boisterousness — as well as the two great streams of nineteenth-century American philosophy: empiricism and idealism. It was Santayana’s singular achievement to perceive the manifold ways in which these schools, so different in tone and the “face” they presented to the world, were in fact children of the same parent. “Even the most emancipated and positivistic of the latest thinkers — pragmatists, new realists, pure empiricists — have been bred in the atmosphere of German idealism; and this fact should not be forgotten in approaching their views.” This paternity is obvious in a self-declared idealist like Emerson or Santayana’s Harvard colleague Josiah Royce, whose maddening prolixity was a matter of substance as well as style: “in spite of his comprehensiveness, he seemed to view everything in relation to something else that remained untold.” The afterlife of idealism was less obvious in James, whose studied posture of hard-headedness concealed the many filiations that his brand of “radical empiricism” maintained with idealism.
The key, Santayana saw, was James’s understanding of experience, which had the effect of “turning psychology into metaphysics.” “Experience,” Santayana wrote, “seems to most of us to lead to conclusions, but empiricism has sworn never to draw them.” If, as James argued, “experience is taken to be in itself the only real existence” then we come to the “the remarkable conclusion that the human spirit was not so much the purpose of the universe as its seat, and the only universe there was” — a conclusion, Santayana observes, that “sums up idealism.”